Skip to main content

Context Matters: The Endangered Past

Christopher Witmore and Ömür Harmansah (both of Brown University) have responded to the Guennol Lioness story with an interesting piece ("The endangered future of the past", IHT, December 21, 2007). They focus on the issue of how the press has placed an emphasis on the "story", i.e. the history of the piece in recent years. And they touch on the tension between the art world's use of provenance (i.e. does the piece have good pedigree? who owned it?) and the archaeological word's distinction between archaeological context and subsequent history.

They illustrate the importance of context with the example of cuneiform tablets belonging to Ur-Utu who lived at Sippar-Amnanum (modern Tell ed-Der).
According to the Belgian excavators of the site, Ur-Utu kept upwards of 2,000 tablets in his house. When it caught fire, perhaps in 1,629 BC (a year suggested by date of the last tablet in the archive), someone, possibly Ur-Utu himself, attempted to rescue some of the tablets, leaving the remainder of the archive behind.

While fleeing the fire, this person apparently stumbled, dropping the documents in the middle of a room. They lay on the floor for over 3,600 years, until archaeologists unearthed them in the mid 1970s.

The detailed archaeological circumstances in which the Ur-Utu cuneiform tablets were excavated have enabled archaeologists and philologists to carefully trace a captivating set of connections between multiple documents and Ur-Utu's private life.

These documents take us into the intimacies of a landholder's livelihood. Each is set in relation to an archive of harvest accounts kept in a domestic space by a landowning singer. But each can also be a text of contemporary study, an object for museum display, or a document worth risking one's life over.
Witmore and Harmansah remind us how the archaeological context provides a richness to help interpret objects. And they also warn us about the superficiality of "loads of airy suppositions and few concrete associations" when dealing with items stripped of their context.

The assessment is bleak for objects which have been removed from archaeological sites in an unscientific way:
Once excavated, the material past is radically transformed. The damage is irreversible.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Codename: Ainsbrook

I have been watching (UK) Channel 4's Time Team this evening. The programme looked at an undisclosed field (under a potato crop) where a Viking burial had been found. The location in Yorkshire was so sensitive that it was given a codename: Ainsbrook. Here is the summary:
In late 2003 two metal detectorists were working in a field in Yorkshire. They found 'treasure' buried just beneath the surface – a collection of Viking material next to a body. Although they had been detecting on the site for a number of years, during which time they had made large numbers of finds, nothing they had uncovered previously compared with this. They decided to share their discovery with archaeologists.The programme explored the tension between metal-detectorists and the English Heritage sponsored archaeologists putting six trenches into the field based on a geo-physical survey. Finds made by the metal-detectorists did not easily map onto the archaeological features.

Part of the programme had an …

The scale of the returns to Italy

I have been busy working on an overview, "Returning Archaeological Objects to Italy". The scale of the returns to Italy from North American collections and galleries is staggering: in excess of 350 objects. This is clearly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the material that has surfaced on the market without a history that can be traced back to the period before 1970. 

I will provide more information in due course, but the researcher is a reminder that we need to take due diligence seriously when it comes to making acquisitions.

Stele returns to Greece

The Hellenic Ministry of Culture has announced (Saturday 8 September 2018) that a stele that had been due to be auctioned at Sotheby's in London in June 2017 has been returned to Greece (Friday 7 September 2018). The identification had been made by Cambridge-based forensic archaeologist Dr Christos Tsirogiannis.

It appeared that the stele had been supplied with a falsified history as its presence with Becchina until 1990 contradicted the published sale catalogue entry. It then moved into the hands of George Ortiz.

A year ago it was suggested that Sotheby's should contact the Greek authorities. Those negotiations appear to have concluded successfully.

The 4th century BC stele fragment, with the personal name, Hestiaios, will be displayed in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens. It appears to have come from a cemetery in Attica.